Today, January 16th …
There is a charming myth that the classical northern Italian dish Risotto à la Milanaise was created in 1574 by the artist responsible for the stained glass windows in the Cathedral of Milan when he added some saffron (supposedly used for colouring his paints) to a dish of rice at his daughters wedding. It is a legend that begs many questions, not the least of which is what was an elite artist doing in the kitchen at that time, paint colourings in hand. The legend goes on to say that the guests pronounced the dish “risus optimus”, or “excellent rice”, which became eventually became “risotto”. The OED does not give this explanation, but does concede that the name is of Italian origin, and then rather prosaically describes the dish as “A stew or broth made with rice, chicken, onions, butter, etc.” The crucial “etcetera” that makes basic risotto into Risotto à la Milanaise, is, of course - saffron.
So, can we get any closer to the real origins of this dish?
What we do know is that a dish of “Sicilian style rice” was served on this day in 1543 at a banquet organised by Cristoforo da Messisbugo, a steward of the Este family in Ferrara. The dish allegedly contained egg yolks, grated cheese, pepper, saffron and sugar. It is certain that Sicily was under Moorish influence for centuries, and saffron originated in the Middle East - probably in ancient Sumeria, and is a feature of Sicilian dishes, so the explanation so far sounds reasonable. We also believe that the Moors also took rice to Europe, and were growing it in Spain in the 8th or 9th century, and that it was being produced in the Lombardy plain by the end of the 15th century, which also fits our story.
Dishes are rarely, if ever “invented” – they evolve and develop over time, and one day might be given a special name, along with which comes the belief that it is newly invented. In reality, rice and saffron were partners at least two centuries before our mid-sixteenth century banquet. It is possible that they were partners in the 8th or 9th century, but no cookbooks (if indeed there were any) survive from that time. I give you recipes for fourteenth and fifteenth century risotto-like dishes containing saffron.
From France, from the manuscript known as the Viander de Taillevent, written in about 1375, and translated by James Prescott:
Decorated rice for a meat day.
Pick over the rice, wash it very well in hot water, dry it near the fire, and cook it in simmering cow's milk. Crush some saffron (for reddening it), steep it in your milk, and add stock from the pot.
From England, from the manuscript known as the Form of Cury, written in about 1395:
Ryse of Flesh.
Take Ryse and waishe hem clene. and do hem in erthen pot with gode broth and lat hem seethe wel. afterward take Almaund mylke and do therto. and colour it with safroun an salt, an messe forth.
From late 15thC Italy, from the cookbook of Maestro Martino, as translated by Jeremy Parzen in The Art of Cooking: the first modern cookery book; edited by Luigi Ballerini.
Martino gives it as a variation of a recipe for Farro (or emmer, an ancient variety of wheat).
Farro with Capon Broth or Other Meat Broth.
To make ten servings: first of all, clean and wash the farro well, and cook in good capon broth or fatty pullet broth, and let it simmer for a long while. When done cooking, add some good spices; and take three egg yolks and a bit of cold farro, and mix together. Then drop into the farro, and make yellow with some saffron.
Rice with Meat Broth.
Prepare as for farro broth. But many do not like eggs with their rice, so you should leave it up to your master’s tastes.
And for a named version of the dish of the day (although not necessarily the first), we jump to the mid-nineteenth century, to Eliza Acton’s version in Modern Cookery for Private Families (1845).
Risotto a la Milanaise
Slice a large onion very thin, and divide it into shreds; then fry it slowly until it is equally but not too deeply browned; take it out and strain the butter, and fry in it about three ounces of rice for every person who is to partake of it. As the grain easily burns, it should be put into the butter when it begins to simmer, and be very gently coloured to a bright yellow tint over a slow fire. Add to it some good boiling broth lightly tinged with saffron, and stew it softly in a copper pan for fifteen or twenty minutes. Stir to it two or three ounces of butter mixed with a small portion of flour, a moderate seasoning of pepper or cayenne, and as much grated Parmesan cheese as will flavour it thoroughly. Boil the whole gently for ten minutes, and serve it very hot, at the commencement of a dinner as a potage.
Obs.- The reader should bear in mind what we have so often repeated in this volume, that rice should always be perfectly cooked, and that it will not become tender with less than three times its bulk of liquid.
Tomorrow’s Story …
The Queen’s Beef.
A Previous Story for this Day …
The ancient Roman festival of Concordia was our story on this day in 2006.
Quotation for the Day …
Rice is a beautiful food. It is beautiful when it grows, precision rows of sparkling green stalks shooting up to reach the hot summer sun. It is beautiful when harvested, autumn gold sheaves piled on diked, patchwork paddies. It is beautiful when, once threshed, it enters granary bins like a (flood) of tiny seed-pearls. It is beautiful when cooked by a practiced hand, pure white and sweetly fragrant.Shizuo Tsuji